HP Spectre Laptop: Australian Review

HP's newest laptop is also its thinnest. It's the world's thinnest, actually. At only 10.4 millimetres thick, it's almost 30 per cent thinner again than the already seriously skinny Apple MacBook, and it's thinner even than most of the standalone tablets with detachable keyboard -- like HP's own Spectre X2. But it doesn't use some super-low-voltage processor and battery-sipping hardware to get there.

What Is It?

Dell's otherwise svelte XPS 15 looks positively chubby alongside the HP Spectre. Sure, the Dell is a feat of engineering, but it's what you get when you take a proper laptop and thin it out wherever possible. The Spectre is something else entirely: it's a laptop designed to topple all competitors and take the crown of the world's thinnest laptop with both hands. Importantly, it doesn't make too many compromises to get to that point. Importantly, it still has more than one input/output/charging port.

Specifications
  • Display: 13.3in, 1920x1080 pixels
  • CPU: Intel Core i5-6200U 2.3-2.8GHz / i7-6500U, 2.5-3.1GHz
  • RAM: 8GB LPDDR3-1866
  • GPU: Intel HD 520
  • Storage: 256-512GB PCI-E SSD
  • Dimensions: 325x229x10.4mm, 1.11kg

The ridiculously skinny (325x229x10.4mm) and lightweight (1.11kg) 13-inch laptop hides away not one but two thin batteries inside its base, all of which work in tandem to power the sixth-gen Intel Core i5 or i7 CPU, 256 or 512GB PCI-Express solid-state drive, 8GB of DDR4 RAM and integrated Intel graphics. Despite its carbon fibre construction, Apple's 920g MacBook is slightly lighter, as well as slightly smaller in length and width. HP is using Intel's most efficient 15-Watt Core i5 and i7 chips in the Spectre, not only for power saving but also to reduce the amount of waste heat produced.

That heat is extracted by what HP is calling 'hyperbaric' cooling, with two intake blower fans at the rear of the Spectre's base drawing in cool air over the internal components, then exhausting it past a single combined heatpipe. Unlike other thin-and-powerful laptops like the Microsoft Surface Book, all the Spectre's components are contained within the base. HP promises 9.5 hours of battery life despite the super-thin design and Core i power. The fan should also contribute to longer usable component life than its fanless competitors.

This Spectre is, like the X2, a sign that HP is being surprisingly quick to adopt the reversible, versatile USB Type-C standard. There's one USB Type-C port on the Spectre's rear right for charging and USB 3.0-speed data transfers, but there are also two more USB-C ports that also function at Thunderbolt 3 speeds, giving the Spectre plenty of input/output grunt and possibly making it possible to use an external graphics amplifier like the Razer Core -- although we're not guaranteeing anything.

What's It Good At?

For a thin and light laptop, the HP Spectre flies through all the regular computing tasks that you might throw at it. The top-specced Core i7 model -- $2999 -- acquits itself well when weighed down with a bevy of light- and middle-weight computing, so you'll have more luck running through a gallery of image editing and resizing in Photoshop Lightroom or a quick video chop-up in Premiere Pro than you would on most other thin-and-lights. Because you have the option for a Core i7 processor, you can run these tasks with a comparatively small hit to battery life -- because they get done quickly -- versus the extra time and effort that you'd need on a lesser laptop or convertible.

If you intend to use the Spectre as a productivity machine -- the kind of thing that you'd take in a (small, not heavy) bag to uni, or that you'd sling under your arm in its extremely fashionable slim leatherette sleeve to take to a business meeting or informal presentation -- then you will quickly fall in love with its keyboard, which is far and away the best that I've used on any laptop nearing the Spectre's size and weight and dimensions. I got used to the MacBook's clickable letter-pads pretty damn quickly, and I can write on a Surface Pro keyboard, but the key travel of the Spectre's keyboard is excellent. Keys feel individually tactile, and it makes typing more precise than any other skinny laptop.

Probably the Spectre's biggest potential advantage, and simultaneously its biggest potential weakness, is its wholesale adoption of the small, reversible USB Type-C connector. The Spectre has three -- one dedicated to both power and low-speed (USB 2.0) data transfers, making it the one you'll definitely be using every day to pump some juice into the Spectre's twin batteries. The other two support Thunderbolt 3 and the ridiculously fast 10Gbps data transfer speeds that the Intel-backed technology supports -- you can connect a 4K monitor, you can connect a fast external storage device. But you have to already use USB-C devices, or be prepared to buy some to match your new laptop.

It's also just an amazing piece of design. Take the Spectre's 10.4mm thickness out of the equation -- I've certainly talked about it enough already -- and you're still left with a satin-charcoal laptop with bright metallic accents, with the bold design decision to use shiny, shiny rose gold rather than something a little safer and more conservative. USB Type-C is similarly a bold choice, but I'm so happy that HP has embraced it with both arms rather than compromising on a skinny power jack or a single old-school USB port. In five years, when everything is USB-C, you'll still be using the Spectre where its competitors unloved sit in desk drawers.

What's It Not Good At?

The rose gold finish of the design may put some buyers off. Personally, I would have preferred it if the Spectre were finished in a matte black and a dark chrome or even a bright silver, rather than the current charcoal-and-rose-gold finish. The luxe HP logo looks amazing -- it's the best part of the entire machine's design, and it's destined to be used only on HP's latest and greatest premium laptops. It's certainly not that the rose gold looks bad -- god knows it's popular with the Apple crowd -- it's just that I wish there was a more businesslike alternative available to anyone that wanted it.

Despite the efficiency of HP's chosen components, and the vast majority of the Spectre's internal chassis space being devoted to battery space, this particular laptop reached around eight hours of productive use in our testing. That's a good result, but still a couple of hours short of the current battery king in the MacBook Air. This is the trade-off you make for the Spectre's Core i5 and i7 CPUs -- they have more computational grunt than even the most powerful Core M found in the Spectre X2, but at a 15 Watt TDP they consume three times the power of a 4.5 Watt Core M-6Y75.

The Spectre's rear fan may be small, but it's powerful -- and it does a good job of keeping those tightly packed internal components cool; even under heavy load the exhaust air never felt uncomfortably hot. What it does get is quite loud, especially once the HP Spectre tucks into a computationally heavy task for more than a few seconds, especially with the screen brightness above half-way and with the charger connected and putting some extra power into the internal batteries, which sit underneath the laptop's wrist-rests. This is a compromise for the combination of decent laptop-grade computing power and the world's thinnest laptop construction, obviously, but it's an inescapable one.

Similarly, other buyers might be put off by the fact that the Spectre's optically bonded 13.3-inch display only has a 1920x1080pixel Full HD native resolution, rather than 2560x1440p (Wide Quad HD) or even the 3840x2160p (Ultra HD) panel that is the very best part of the Razer Blade Stealth. It has a decent range of brightness and definitely doesn't have any crippling colour or contrast display issues, but it doesn't excel in any category. It's a reasonably good display as laptop screens go, but it's not one of the best we've seen; we'd prefer the MacBook over it in a pinch.

Should You Buy It?

Do you want the world's thinnest laptop? Then yes, obviously you should buy the $2299-plus HP Spectre. It's as simple as that -- it's the current title holder, and that means a lot in a world where it takes the smartphone makers -- masters of their craft -- a year to shave off a few tenths versus their competitors or to improve on last year's iteration. And, in your backpack or satchel or handbag, it makes a difference; carrying the Spectre around is closer to an iPad Pro than it is a MacBook Pro.

HP Spectre
80

Price: from $2299

Like
  • Thin design, reasonable power.
  • Excellent keyboard.
  • You've only got USB-C.
Don't Like
  • Middling battery life.
  • Loud internal fan.
  • You've only got USB-C.

But even smartphones have evolved in the last couple of years, trading the mine-is-thinner arms race for a more rational approach to battery life, trading millimetres for milliamperes. The Spectre's circa eight hours of battery life is enough for a work day if you're careful about your screen brightness and judicious about closing any superfluous programs or Chrome tabs hiding in the background, but part of me still would have traded another millimetre for another hour of productive use or some extra peace of mind.

The Spectre's secret weapon is the fact that in those eight hours, you'll probably get more done than you would on its chief competitors. Its keyboard is surprisingly good -- surprising because you'll keep using it, and you'll keep finding it surprisingly easy to use -- and it has the processing headroom to make it possible to do the odd bit of photo editing in Photoshop or Lightroom, or the odd bit of video transcoding. It'll more than handle the everyday computing tasks that most people will throw at it.

Sure, it's expensive. Just like the MacBook, you're paying a little bit of a premium for a device that smashes it out of the park on not just one metric -- its size -- but that also backs that up with a strong result in computing power, which its competitors lack. It cedes ground on other -- less important -- criteria, like the quality of its screen, but the package that you're getting overall is a well rounded one. Just as long as you're ready and willing to start buying some spare USB-C cables.